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Ithaka

  • Alexander Shewan
Extract

The island of Ithaka in the Ionian Sea has been famous throughout the centuries that have passed since European literature began with Homer. In itself it is small and mountainous, and but a poor spot on which to stage a noble drama, but its association with the far-famed hero of an immortal epic has more than made up for the insignificance of the terrain. In recent years it has achieved further distinction as the subject of a lively, and at times embittered controversy about its actual position on the map. Most scholars are content to believe that by Ithaka Homer meant the island which still bears the name, now modified to Thiaki; others affirm that the scene of the poet's story was really Santa Maura to the north, while others again have given the honour to Cefalonia to the west. Quite recently a German geographer has even proclaimed that ‘Corfu is Ithaka.’ Samuel Butler, in his famous Homeric escapade, convinced himself that Ithaka was to be found in one of the Aegadean Islands off the coast of Sicily. So far, it has not been said of it that it never existed save in the imagination of the poet, but it may yet be the victim of that last infirmity of Homeric geographical speculation.

Interest in the island due to certain observations by the ancients was quickened by the visits of travellers-Gell, Dodwell, Leake, Mure and others-in the course of last century. The general aim of their explorations was to test the correctness of the Odyssean descriptions, and this they did with thoroughness. Their fault was that generally they went too far; they expected, and sought to establish, perfect correspondence. The modern expert comments that a poet is a poet; that freedom in his dealings with time and space is only his right; and that trifling discrepancies between the poetry and actuality are not to be regarded as vitiating the whole description and stamping it as purely imaginary. And all that may be conceded. The old explorers were certainly the victims of an excess of zeal. It has even been said that the inhabitants of the island made profit of their eagerness, by inventing names of localities to do duty as the remains of the appellations to be found in the epic.

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* Since this was written it has come to notice that Albert Herrmann, in a paper in the Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 1926, States that all that is related about Ithaka by one of several poets whose contributions to the Odyssey he believes he can identify, ‘existed only in the imagination’ of that poet.

1 Bacon, Janet R. Voyage of the Argonauts, 1925.

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Antiquity
  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
  • URL: /core/journals/antiquity
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